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The Potential of the Aging Mind

If you continue to stay active mentally by challenging yourself to think more deeply, avoiding constant distractions and information overload, and learning new skills and information, chances are your best brain years are still ahead of you, not behind you.
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A persistent myth in our youth-focused culture suggests the process of aging means inevitable, progressive decline. In my field of research, brain health, this myth results in most people believing and allowing their best brain years to be in the past.

Think about it. When do you believe your brain was operating at peak performance?

I frequently ask people this question, and the answer is almost always 10 to 20 years ago - no matter what age they are!

While it is true that many brain processes decline as we age, that is only part of the story. As brain health experts, we are discovering there is more to be celebrated than to be feared. Some brain functions actually improve as we grow older. In fact, as long as no disease is present, the majority of seniors continue to have the capacity to continue to learn new things and make sound decisions.

New research conducted by Joshua Hartshorne at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows us different mental processes peak at different ages. For example, the study finds we tend to be best at remembering facts such as names, dates and places in high school. But this processing speed begins to decline quickly at age 18. Similarly, the amount of information we can remember and use at any given time, called working memory, functions best in our mid-20s. But other abilities, such as emotional intelligence and improvement in vocabulary do not peak until decades later.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, the Hartshorne study examined a number of different brain processes that make up intelligence, rather than viewing intelligence as a single measure as has traditionally been done. At the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, we, like Hartshorne, feel it is important to examine cognitive health and aging from a broader and more comprehensive perspective.

A few years ago, our BrainHealth team embarked on one of the first-ever studies to examine the link between age, cognitive health and decision-making capacity. Many previous studies had documented a decline in the ability to think logically and solve problems as a person ages. However, these studies had a major weakness: they tended to ignore positive age-related factors such as extensive life experience, reasoning ability and accumulated knowledge that can preserve and even enhance decision-making ability.

Our research, "Healthy Brain, Health Decisions: The MetLife Study of Decision-Making Potential," examined healthy adults in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Encouragingly, we found no decline in decision-making ability in any age group. We also found strategic learning capacity--the ability to sift and know which information is more important to focus on and ignore less important information--may actually increase with age.

In fact, the oldest participant group did better than the younger groups on other measures as well. They were more conscientious; wiser about considering their options before making a decision; and less likely to be overly focused on arriving at a solution immediately without considering other outcomes than other groups.

This research suggests your brain may be able to compensate for its diminishing speed of processing and ability to remember facts by improvements in other functions. One of the greatest assets of the aging brain is its deep repository of learned information and experiences, and the ability to derive and remember abstracted big ideas more efficiently than details. This is one of the reasons CEOs of companies tend to be in their 50s, 60s or even older, rather than in their 20s. A 25 year-old worker might be able to take in and remember more details, but be less adept at appreciating which information is important and which is less relevant to the decision at hand.

If you are someone who believes your best brain years are behind you, ask yourself this: could you perform the job you are doing or manage the responsibilities in your life now twenty years ago? Probably not. What you lack in processing speed and learning capacity, you should be able to make up for in knowledge, experience and wisdom. But, it doesn't just happen on its own; you have to keep challenging your brain to keep this latter capacity in shape. Another plus for the aging brain: studies show older adults are less likely to dwell on negative information; they are much more likely to remember the good in a situation or context. This ability to remain positive is of great benefit in social interactions.

In fact, our recent research shows that our brain's inherent neuroplasticity can be harnessed to improve mental capacity and cognitive brain health, suggesting it may never be too late to maintain or even improve our brain's performance.

It is time for us to rethink negative public perceptions about cognitive aging and cultivate a more positive view. Aging, in and of itself, is not a disease. For the majority of older adults who will not develop Alzheimer's or other dementias, aging is a developmental process that can add valuable perspective to the brain's existing higher-order thinking abilities.

If you continue to stay active mentally by challenging yourself to think more deeply, avoiding constant distractions and information overload, and learning new skills and information, chances are your best brain years are still ahead of you, not behind you.